Book Review – Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

The deep thinking and deep discussion going on in this book is my version of chick lit.  If you find a narrator exploring philosophical ideas to be thrilling rather than pretentious, then a read of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas might just tickle your fancy like it did mine.  It ponders its way through the complexity of relationships, roaming through explorations into science, pseudoscience and philosophy, pondering what’s able to be known and what isn’t, what’s real and what isn’t, and how we all get sucked into our own narratives.

Meg is a thirtysomething writer who’s stuck within her own novel, the one she’s kept rewriting and rewriting and deleting until it’s where it is now, back at a measly 43 pages.  She’s also stuck in a relationship that’s sinking fast, is contemplating entering another, and she’s broke.

She also has rather interesting friends who have wonderful intellectual discussions.  If this is the sort of dinner table conversation you like, then perhaps we should have dinner:

“Aquinas wondered what would happen if God wanted to achieve universal resurrection.  In other words, bringing everybody who had ever lived back to life at the same time.  What would happen to cannibals, and the people they ate?  You couldn’t bring them all back at the same time, because the cannibals are made of the people they have eaten.  You could have one but not the other.  Ha.”  I looked at Rowan.  “That’s a good example of a paradox.”

“This is an interesting conundrum,” Conrad said eventually.  Aquinas focuses this problem on the cannibal, but in reality everything is made of everything else.  Every boat I build used to be a tree, several trees in fact, and perhaps meteorites, iron ore, plants and so on.  You can’t eat your cake and have it too.  I think this is where the paradox comes from.”

Depending on whether you think this sort of thing is pointless intellectual masturbation or, like me a stimulation of your imagination will determine whether you find this book a pain in the bum or a rollicking good ride.

Personally, I love books where the protagonist spends time pondering the reality of perception of her dog, Bess:

B gave me a look that I anthropomorphised into ‘What on earth are we doing now?’, so I explained to her that we were going to go and rescue Josh and then drive home to Dartmouth, and we might see some squirrels on the Lanes and when we got back it would definitely be time for her dinner.  She cocked her head sharply each times he recognised a word: Josh, home, squirrels, dinner.  I wondered if I could communicate with B more efficiently by using only nouns and then stringing them in the rough order that they were going to happen.  Was that what the world was to B?  Was it all just nouns on a timeline?  There had to be a bit more to it than that: she was visibly thrilled at the idea of squirrels, even though, as I’d said to Libby, she didn’t chase them any more.  She did look a bit baffled, however, that the squirrels could come between home and dinner, so I changed the order to Josh, squirrels, home, dinner.  This time she whimpered slightly as I said each word.  I reckoned I could probably write a book on dog psychology myself after all these years of study.

Others have commented that Scarlett Thomas is too smart for her own good, that she draws attention to herself with “Look at me, look how smart I am” intellectual cartwheel-turning.  Of course, on one level that’s exactly what she’s doing, considering this novel plays with metafiction and the idea (strange to modern Wasterners) of the storyless story.  However, I found the exploration of ideas to be so satisfying that for me this all panned out as playful fun rather than egotistical masturbation.  Perhaps that says something about me, I’m not sure.

“One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it’s wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.”  I bit my lip.  “Of all the theories of the universe I’ve come across, [yours] is probably the best one.  Honestly.  But I can’t accept theories of the universe.  I think it’s too big to theorise.”

“But isn’t the point of being alive to try to answer the big questions?”

I shook my head.  “For me it’s about trying to work out what the questions are.”

Questions and answers.  The wonderful thing about loving both questions and answers is that when you get tired of the lack of answers, you can retreat backwards into living loving the questions.  Which, paradoxically, is a much bigger and more exhilarating space in which to live, leaving entire empty rooms for mystery, and for playfulness.

The ideas played around with in this novel mean that nothing is resolved in the traditional fashion, with ends all neatly tied up.  And while that annoys the hell out of me, it also makes me smile a little because, well, it’s always a little fun to be fucked with … before you go on to the next book that will probably have some neat resolutions and a bow on top.  I find it interesting that while I’m quite happy with open-endedness, I did notice a vague sense of dissatisfaction on finishing this book that I couldn’t put my finger on until I considered it here.

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On Frailty and White Australia

*Collins Street, 5pm – John Brack. Image, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Purchased, 1956. © National Gallery of Victoria

It’s been a big fortnight in Australia for white men who are unnerved at living in an insane, chaotic and rather stupid time, who yearn to feel safe so badly that they must project it onto not capitalism, or corporations, or rich people, or job loss, or climate change, but onto migrants. We’ve had Blair Cottrell on Sky News go entirely unquestioned on his desire to purge the black and brown evil from amongst us. We’ve had Andrew Bolt writing about ‘the foreign invasion’, about “a tidal wave of immigrants sweeping away what’s left of our national identity.” And then a few days ago we had Fraser Anning give his maiden speech in federal parliament where he talked in part about the need to stop Muslims from migrating here and calling for a return to the White Australia Policy, to the tradition of European Christian peoples occupying this land, a tradition that’s gone on for oh, at least 65,000 minutes.

What do you think they mean – Cottrell, Bolt and Anning etc – when they talk about our national identity being taken away? They never quite explain what they mean but they talk about it constantly.

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for how they are feeling. And I’m sorry if that is repulsive to you. But I do have sympathy for how easily we crumble into hate (all of us). For how easily swayed we are to the childish violent view. To what fucking babies we are, and how quickly we learn how to become immune to others’ suffering. To how little we have to hang on to. To how much beauty has been lost. Of what whisps we are in the wind.

Living now, you can’t grab hold of anything stable. There’s so much rage, so much desire to know who or what to blame. Living now, you really do understand the filmmaker Werner Herzog’s comment that “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” That ice is cracking, just like the sheets in Antarctica. We are on fire, just like our earth. We don’t often consider that we are a part of the earth. We still do, strangely and creepily, consider that we are separate from the earth. We call it “the environment” as if it’s a product, a thing *out there*, a disconnect.

This paradigm is the water we’ve been swimming in strongly for 500 years. What chance did we ever have to not fracture into 23 million shards?

So what do people mean when they say we as Australians have lost our national identity? Is it the identity of the ANZACS? Is it barbecues with fellow laconic Aussies? Beachgoing? I feel constrained by that identity. It just doesn’t feel like much of one, to me. It feels like they are crying out for an identity that never was a very fitting one in the first place. Like something cobbled together by politicians, a story. There’s so little story to be gleaned from such a young, young country. A handful of generations attached to a penal colony of a colonising empire, one which then settled the lands and which decimated the bodies of those who were already here.

But we won’t face it. Us white Australians with a scattering of generations behind us, we won’t face it. We say no, and slap away the hand of history and turn to the wall and pull our never-was-enough-to-keep-us-warm identities around us and say no, the problem is with immigrants who aren’t us.

Is this desire to regain back our tattered national identity simply a desire of an inflamed central nervous system that is so lonely upon the earth that it wants to – *needs to* – go out in the street and see itself reflected back to itself in a white face, so it knows that it exists? That’s not so surprising – people do wish to be around their own kind. It’s not even racist to say so. The racism comes in when your kind, which happens to feel very weak and frail for totally acceptable reasons (but which are culturally powerful and hence the mindfuck) pushes the blame onto that group over there who smell different.

Is it so hard to accept that white men, if they are not very good at self-examination, or if they haven’t grown up feeling very loved, or if they’re not particularly knowledgeable about the massive complexity of the tattered world being the way it is, will dig their heels in deeper to racist beliefs when smartass leftists whose identity politics aren’t wedded to humanism think abusing white men is not only okay but it’s fucking justice, man? I mean, what the fucking fuck is that?

We all see each other as two-dimensional avatars now though, so it’s okay. Apparently. Some of us are measuring people solely as power-blips, not as people comprising an already fractured society who are fractured themselves. Well, that idea only ever works as a theory; humans are embodied beings within that society. Individual men did not cause the shitfest. No one started the fucking fire.

I mean, being a bewildered white man who has inherited racist tendencies by dint of being born where you were, and then being blamed for fucking everything and told to change without being given the tools to do so (because we do still expect men to magically fix themselves) would be enough to Frankenstein scared racist men out into their current time in the sun, wouldn’t it? And if the only place where your fears are being addressed is on the far right – well, what’s a little extra racism, right?

Fraser Anning’s speech  is full of a great yearning for things to return to the way they were. By this he means the Australia of his youth, where he was safe and secure in his life, in his place, in his country under queen and God. It’s a bit of a requirement for a good life, really, knowing where your place is.

There is though, for the time being, nowhere, no places, for any of us.

However, he also wishes to return to a history where the blood crying from the ground of Aboriginal people slain not even 200 years before was as silenced then as it is now. As unacknowledged then as he wishes it to be now. And if you can’t acknowledge your country’s beginnings, then you shouldn’t expect that tattered identity to do much for you at all. If you yearn for the past but you also won’t face it, how on earth do you stand?

Freewriting – Chalk, Grand Piano, Caterpillar

In recent months I’ve been taking part in freewriting practice on the blogging platform Steemit. The prompts come from a fellow Steemit user, Marianne West. There is something cool that happens when you rustle up a vague idea in your head, set a timer for five minutes, and just write. Sometimes my freewrites are so crap that I don’t post them. Other times the timer goes off and I’m too far in to stop, and so I end up writing for 30 minutes. At those times I’m always amazed at where this stuff comes from. Is it me, with what constitutes my mind being like an iceberg, largely hidden, so that stuff comes out of my own mind and surprises me? Or do we share a mind on some level, as humans, and I’m dipping into it?

Whichever way, writing helps keep me in touch with one of the most awesome aspects of being human, at a time when it is so easy to dislike us 🙂

Prompt: Chalk – Greetings from Phraseos

I loved how tripped out I got from writing this one, all from one little word, chalk:

We are the people of the land of Phraseos. We live underground the city of Istanbul and you above-grounders don’t even understand the power you have over us here. We live literally within the idioms, phrases, metaphors and analogies that AGHers (above-ground humans) use regularly. And so whatever poetic language lines fall out of use in your world, they also fall by the wayside here too.

However, many still remain. Take “fall by the wayside”, for instance. How many AGHers know what a wayside even is? Well, we do. It’s the side of a road, or a path. And so every time one of us accidentally use the phrase as a figure of speech, we must act it out.

We must go outside, fall next to a path or a road, before we can go back inside and resume our conversation. Many Phraseos households have wayside pillows for this purpose, which we tie around ourselves to break our falls.

When we inadvertently say something “broke our fall” we have to go into the cupboard and get the fallbreaker, which is a long thin piece of glass and a mallet. Someone must climb on the roof and drop the piece of glass and we must smash it with the mallet before it hits the ground, thus breaking its fall.

We have a lot of cupboard space in our dwellings.

There has not been an update in your phrase “chalk it up to experience” and so we can’t yet use whiteboards much here, though they’d be much more convenient. No, we have to buy chalkboard paint and chalk so that whenever we have uncomfortable situations which cause us pain, we have to chalk them up to experience on the chalkboard in order to learn from them. It’s quite cumbersome.

So if you could start saying “whiteboard marker it up to experience” that would be good.

But I guess the bright side of it is that our teachers can still throw dusters at their students. And ole Suki Kama, who lives round the corner from me, has been able to have a long career manufacturing chalkboard paint and chalk for Phraseos needs.

Suki produces regular-sized chalk for all of our experience-chalking requirements. She also makes very long pieces of chalk, which she rents out to people who need to demonstrate to others how very far they are from being finished in a certain situation. They rent out the chalk and show it to the person they are idioming to, and they say, “i’m not done yet. Not by a long chalk.” Then they show the 12 foot long piece of chalk to that person and this grants them by law the right to be not finished at something for another 6 months.

Suki sells lots of chalk to soccer referees too, for the times when they disallow goals and must run out onto the ground and perform an elaborate ritual of chalking off the goal so that it doesn’t count.

She has recently begun a profitable sideline with a local cheesemaker, Bill Stottinbottom. When people say that two people are as alike as chalk and cheese, Suki and Bill provide them with said items in which to perform the chalk and cheese ritual, in which the two people described throw a coin which decides who is chalk and who is cheese, and each must eat a large piece of their new talisman.

It is a very unusual life for us living in Phraseos, I suppose you would think. We are not an efficient society as everything is time-consuming and any slip of the tongue into a metaphor or phrase or idiom can mean a two-or-three-hour ritual must ensue. We love living in Phraseos however. We do not live under a capitalist system here. We are a most poetic people, and so we love our ritual-rich life. We even feel a bit sorry for you humans and the more metaphorically barren life the digital linear world has brought upon you.

And so this is our official invitation to you, the beautiful but metaphorically challenged humans of the topside world. We wish to extend a cordial invitation to our upcoming festival on 32nd July. It is one of our favourite festivals, the Art Washes Away From The Soul The Dust Of Everyday Life Festival. Please BYO swimwear.

Two young Phraseosians competing hard at the 2017 Leave No Stone Unturned Festival.

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Prompt: Grand Piano – Stealing the Sound

Dad never let me play on the grand piano. Said no, it wasn’t for children, and it wasn’t for other grown ups either. Nobody except for him. Not even Mum or Auntie Hattie were allowed to play on it.

I could play on the normal sized one though, he said, whenever I wanted.

It wasn’t the same, though.

My urge to play on the grand piano overtook me the day after the funny famous piano man who loved to hug people and had a movie made about him had played on it when he came to visit. And so I played on it when Dad went out. And the sun shone right in the room and stabbed me in the back of the head. Our upstairs was just the right height so that I could see right into Mrs Purvis’s backyard and right as I was looking in it she ran out to the clothesline butt naked with her fat boobies swinging and her hairy lady bit and everything and grabbed a dress off the line and ran back inside.

It was like perfect timing.

Whenever Dad went out, I went into his big room and took the sheet music for whatever song I was learning and I would play it on the grand. And Mum knew, and she never mentioned it to Dad ever and that made it our secret, and a delicious one that was like the best bubblegum flavoured ice cream ever.

Ice cream was a naughty thing that I stole from out of the freezer every day I could. Just a bit so you didn’t know any had been stolen because our house bought a LOT of ice cream and so it was hard to tell.

When I was 21 Dad gave me a card and inside it were smeared these purply blue smears everywhere. And he wrote, “I always knew when you played the piano because there were always these kinds of marks on the keys. Happy birthday. Now it’s yours.”

Which was the best present. Except now it’s mine, when I go to play it, it’s just not the lustre of childhood missing. It’s also the lustre of illicit activity gone.

Dad runs a piano school still. The grand piano he played when he toured sits, pride of place in front of the art deco windows. It was much easier than I thought to get a key cut and to find out the deactivation code for the alarm. And so now I sit and play, in the dark, at 2am, looking out onto late-leaving couples from restaurants.

I never play as well or as light-fingered as these times when I’m stealing the sound.

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Prompt: Caterpillar – Liquefy

I realised the other day that I’d never really considered how quickly it takes for the caterpillar changes to a butterfly.

I’ve always been so blown away by the everyday mundane-magic of it actually happening at all that I’d never really thought about how it happens in realtime. I guess I thought it must happen in an eyeblink.

It’s not in an eyeblink. Caterpillars actually liquefy before they become butterflies.

This is the kind of thing that requires sitting around and pondering for at least a year or two. Like so much in the natural world there is a revolting aspect that needs to be got past and not flinched from before the craziness and potential of it opens up under a more diffuse seeing.

The caterpillar liquefies and does not die but is transformed. Just think on that, as the world swirls and rages around us and a chef with a love of the common man and woman succumbs to the out door, and the liquid fire of volcanoes of Hawaii roar up and bubble over.

Maybe we are liquefying too, in a fashion.

So many of the world’s wisdom texts speak of a time of change, a sun flash, an eyeblink change, an evolutionary leap. Maybe, for us, made of stars as we are, our evolutionary jump will come from a thousand hot shots from Sol, the sun, the sun of man and the sun of women. I like to imagine the quantum leap of those who are made of stars comes via our own, via liquid golden light, from one shape to another.

Illustration by Joris Hoefnagel, circa 1591-1596. Public domain.

Turnaround

“​Isn’t this a remarkable and beautiful moment in our history?  Slowly, by fits and starts, we are beginning to wake up to the suffering we’ve caused ourselves and each other.  We are starting to walk out of our separate isolation cells of fear and shame.  The Great Turning is calling us back to the solidarity we yearn for and need if we are to survive.”

– the big-pictured optimist Joanna Macy

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

These Days

These days they feel like a gulch.

Like a ruined breathdead space in-between

The hard sucking back of the ocean and the

Bursting forth, the breaking through, the

On-rush of the wild, woolly, rolling crash of a

New wave.

Julian Water Waves by Riverfox1 CC3.0-non-comm-no-derivs

The Mystery of the Traffic Jam

The Exeter Uni creators of a 2007 mathematical model constructed to determine how modern traffic somehow snarls itself right down into a jam claim they have the answer why. The reason, it appears, is me.

Well, not me personally. At least, not all of the bloody jams. I mean, I hardly drive at all these days. But it could be someone like me – someone whose nervous system is a little over-reactionary, or someone who’s having a vague morning or afternoon.

This is the second indication I’ve had in recent years that the way I drive is sometimes suboptimal. It wasn’t until, after observing the terrifying way my partner merges onto the highway and questioning him about it, that I realised that his way makes absolute sense, and is far safer. You don’t meander your way up to the end of the merging lane and then pick up speed so that you’re doing the speed limit a few seconds after you’ve hit the highway. No. You build up on the merging lane itself, so that you’re bursting onto that highway at maximum speed, straightaway. 

What a terrifying proposal. You mean, I need to be merging into a bunch of cars at 100 k and expect them to let me in? Yes, that’s exactly what you’re meant to do. And it’s far easier, and safer, to do it at maximum speed rather than 10 ks under.

Yikes. That means trusting your fellow road occupants are going to be accommodating. That’s not always a thing to be credited in Melbourne traffic.

It all makes perfect sense though. I mean, I’ve played Frogger. I didn’t listen in maths in high school, for sure, but I’m not a total dick about the physics and mathematics of the world in which I live. It just didn’t quite compute up until then.

See? The world is always designing ways for us to keep our humility in check.

It’s like when a boyfriend I had as a 19 year old pointed out to me that as you’re coming up to the type of traffic-lighted intersection that allows you to turn left without needing to stop at the lights, if you look at what the traffic lights are doing in the other direction, you can get an accurate idea of how much you need to slow down before you turn left, if at all.

Perfectly sensible. Makes for smoother driving. It just hadn’t occurred to me, up until then.

And so as if I wasn’t enough of a dumbass, now I find that I may indeed have been the cause of a traffic jam in the past. It seems all it takes is for one person to slow down and brake unnecessarily hard in response to, say, a lorry changing lanes, and an automotive butterfly effect spills its way back down the road until eventually – voila, a traffic jam.

Seems like I might be a prime candidate for a driverless car. I’d prefer an on-standby chauffeur but the three-book deal scenario hasn’t eventuated yet.

This is my entry in WordPress’s Daily Post. Today’s prompt theme is mystery.

Pic by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos – CC-by-NC not public domain, see link.


Writing Without Deleting

I have lost the will to write without deleting.

I first wrote “I have lost the will to write” but that’s not true. The spirit is willing but the flesh is chronic illness-weak. It is extremely frustrating to know from experience what happens when you write every day, how much that primes the pump so that you’re surprised at the strength and clarity of the water that ends up coming out, but to not be able to do so.

But added to that is an extra roadblock. It’s the knowledge that the stopper has been unloosed and the digital genie has come out and wow, look at the hubris out there! Look at how people comment, all brazen like, about shit that they absolutely don’t know enough about to comment on. But don’t let that stop you, morons. Let your delusion continue, the one that says your limited, narrow view is the entirety of the situation.

The world will end with a whimper, smothered under the opinions of terrified people’s ego-bloat. It will become so heavy that it’ll spill us off our orbit and we’ll smash into the moon.

I have lost the will to write without deleting because the people who cannot contain their terror and rage are winning. I don’t have a safe space to write in anymore. I feel like all that terror and rage follows me into every corner, into my own mind. It’s irrational, for sure. But I am sick and broke and surrounded by a bunch of fellow Australians who are fine with the Australian Government’s treatment of our refugees, who break everything down to economics, who believe every dose of fearmongering the government sees fit to grant them.

I am so tired right now and I hate the way some university students think that exploring ideas is dangerous enough that they need safe spaces in their universities. Fuck. Ideas are the safest thing of all to me. Safer by far than the people who haven’t entertained the ones about common humanity, about people who have been divided by the rich maybe not continuing to weaken themselves by demonising everything that’s not their tribes.

Or the idea about people learning how to own their own shit instead of scapegoating other people. 

Or the idea about the world’s problems being so complex and intertwined and not easily solved. About those problems not being intractable either. 

There’s nothing scary about ideas, only the dim everyday dull fear of people who don’t even know how to work with them in the first place, or to realise that their terror, which comes from living on top of a metaphoric volcano, is legitimate. That they should acknowledge how scared they are. How scared everybody is. How every person on the planet shares the same 99.99% of DNA and has the same jaggery, shuddering nervous system as they.